The Manhattanization of Downtown?

As the city's inner core continues to take shape, one New York transplant worries about hopping on the gentrification treadmill


Gentrification. For years, Las Vegas managed to avoid it, content to expand outward with no need to tear down anything but yucca and cacti or displace anyone other than a few lizards. But our growth to big-city proportions has brought this big-city issue, a result of blending retro culture and Internet money—along with the national trend of people moving from suburbs to cities—and dumping the whole cocktail into the middle of Fremont Street. Some people are excited for new opportunities, be they financial, cultural or personal. Others fear being displaced from homes and jobs or just losing their favorite bar or art gallery.

Me, I’m nervous. I’ve been through this before. I spent years in lower Manhattan, moving from tumbledown tenement to semifinished loft. As I came to each place, it would begin to change. Pleasingly at first: a decent coffee shop, a store that sold fresh produce, with the worst of the bad element getting swept out with the tide. But eventually the pace would pick up, and the results weren’t so salubrious—the corner bodega turned into an Argentinian steakhouse; the decades-old neighborhood bar transformed into a prefab “Irish pub”; art studios replaced by ateliers making four-figure custom wedding dresses. Rents rose beyond what a paycheck that wasn’t issued by Wall Street or augmented by a trust fund could cover, and so I moved on to the next neighborhood. Where the cycle would start again …

Five years ago, I moved to the Arts District. It had a cluster of galleries, a few thrift stores, the family-run restaurant and two dive bars—punctuation amid vacant storefronts and abandoned motor courts. Today, Main Street is lined by windows full of starburst clocks and art deco coffee tables, as smiling young couples—men in fedoras, women in sundresses—wander along wide sidewalks. At night there are the sounds of cocktails being shaken as you pass an open door, music thumping from somewhere. But now I hear dark mutterings of theme bars and enormous brewpubs, not to mention a dearth of reasonably priced apartments. I’m starting to feel like Typhoid Mary: Whither I go, tapas restaurants and hipster boutiques eventually follow …

Gentrification may be a new word here, but it’s an old problem. Whenever more than one group lays claim to the same geographical area, there’s going to be conflict. In New York, the sides in the debate were easier to recognize: It was us vs. them, residents vs. interlopers. Blue NYPD barricades would go up, cops on one side, the neighborhood hoi polloi on the other, the conflict perhaps ending in a brisk debate over that perennial rhetorical question: What came first, the rock or the nightstick?

In Las Vegas, the process is different, faster: The influx of outside money in one coordinated mass is unlike the piecemeal efforts I’ve seen in the past. And thankfully, the battlefield is now Facebook flame wars rather than physical confrontation on the streets. But the question of who’s the “us” and who’s the “them” continues to get more complex: Does being a lifelong Las Vegan trump being a newer arrival to the neighborhood? Should business owners have more of a say than homeowners? Or is it the other way around?

Nobody wants to go backward, to abandoned storefronts and garbage-strewn streets. But nobody wants a luxury high-rise and a Starbucks on every corner, either. There should be a happy medium, but it’s difficult to find and impossible to maintain. We can’t just throw on the brakes and shout, “We stop here! Right here! With only four bars, five restaurants and somewhat-improved-but-still-affordable housing!” Once the big, shiny ball starts rolling, there’s no stopping it.

So I look at Downtown and, yes, it is good to see what was once vacant currently occupied, what was dirty now clean, the dead and deserted transformed into the alive and bustling. But I still have misgivings, which I was reminded of when I visited my old NYC neighborhoods a few weeks ago: The punk-rock bar that’s also been a tiki bar, a pool bar and a mixology bar is now an oyster bar; the Polish diner I used to eat breakfast at is a French bistro (following previous iterations of Mexican, Latin fusion and retro Continental).

There’s nothing wrong with change. But wiping out longtime small businesses for an endless flavor-of-the-month turnover feels less like progress than running in place at an ever-faster pace. Downtown is still early in the process. I just hope it doesn’t wind up on the treadmill.